'Silent Days' ('Hluchni dni'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2019

Silent Days-Publicity Still-H 2019
An artful, lyrical treatment of gritty subject matter.

Director Pavol Pekarcik brings a dash of poetic fakery to this unorthodox documentary about deaf children from Slovakia's Roma minority.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois famously declares that she prefers magic over realism. But why settle for either/or when you can have both? That seems to be the attitude of Slovakian producer-director Pavol Pekarcik, whose lightly doctored documentaries typically smudge the line between fact and fiction, framing authentic social-realist subjects within artfully composed, loosely staged scenarios. This method has proved fruitful for Pekarcik, with two Oscar submissions in his production portfolio, Martin Sulik's Gypsy (2011) and Iveta Grofova's Made in Ash (2012), plus a co-directing credit on the prize-winning festival hit Velvet Terrorists (2013).

Pekarcik's latest quasi-documentary, Silent Days, is a quartet of unrelated but thematically linked portraits of hearing-impaired children from Slovakia's impoverished Roma community, a historically marginalized group who are still systematically segregated, according to recent Amnesty International and United Nations reports. The film is mostly composed of long, static, observational shots, which lends this project a more austere and naturalistic texture than his previous work. World premiered in competition at Karlovy Vary in July, this left-field sociopolitical treatise has ample festival potential, especially at specialist documentary events. Theatrical interest will be very niche, but Pecarcik's solid track record and artful framing of gritty material should boost its appeal.

The opening chapter centers on Sandra (Sandra Sivakova), a deaf 14-year-old girl with a passion for soccer. In between bickering over money and bills, her feckless parents promise to take her to meet her hero, Brazilian legend Ronaldinho. In reality, they are hatching much bleaker plans for their burdensome disabled daughter, grooming her for marriage rooted in financial desperation. Pecarcik downplays this dark twist with extended shots of Sandra washing her hair and kicking a ball around in her wedding dress, lyrical glimpses of a slow-motion tragedy.

If anything, the three subsequent character snapshots feel even more opaque and open-ended than the first. In the next story, Marian (Marian Hlava) is a preteen loner who idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme and spends his free time practicing martial arts moves on scrubby wasteland down by the railway tracks. After him we meet Alena (Alena Cervenakova) and Rene (Rene Cervenak), sweet teenagers sharing an awkward romance that soon develops into pregnancy and marriage plans.

In the final chapter, Pekarcik follows Roman (Roman Balog), Kristian (Kristian Balog) and Karmen (Karmon Balog), three resourceful kids trying to scavenge enough junk building materials to help their dirt-poor parents build a bathroom alongside their shanty town shack. The solution they eventually cobble together is both poetic and surreal, like something from a Luis Bunuel film.

Purposely vague about time, place and social context, Silent Days takes an uncompromising approach to non-fiction film grammar that will frustrate some viewers. Pekarcik has admitted in press interviews that he is uneasy with the standard methods of documentary filmmaking, which typically involve a covert element of staged reality anyway. Then again, these quietly absorbing character sketches have their own humane and tender truthfulness, their elegantly framed static-camera shots feeling like painterly canvases for the often wordless, universal, domestic mini-dramas unfolding within. There is a kind of deeper authenticity at play here, a hint of magic alongside the mundane.

Production companies: Partizanfilm, Rozhlas a televizia Slovenska, Kaleidoscope, Skolfilm
Cast: Sandra Sivakova, Marian Hlavac, Alena Cervenakova, Rene Cervenak, Roman Balog
Director-screenwriter-producer: Pavol Pekarcik
Cienmatographers: Pavol Pekarcík, Oto Vojticko
Editors: Pavol Pekarcík, Ondrej Lehocky
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (East of the West Competition)
Sales: Kaleidoscope, Bratislava

81 minutes